Tying ourselves together

The subject of modern philosophy is a constructive subject. Like the God it displaces, this sovereign subject relates only to what it constructs and it is, therefore, unaffected by anything that is finally other than, or radically different from, itself. What seems to be a relationship to something other – be that other God, nature, culture, history, objects or other subjects – always turns out to be a dimension of the subject's relationship to itself.  
- Mark C. Taylor

I’m getting to the age at which many the beliefs or precepts that I’ve developed over the years appear frail or simply wrong, and suggest a need to revisit the underlying concerns and questions. This is especially the case with regard to the most enduring concerns and the oldest questions – those of meaning and significance, of the how and why of existence.

Like many people, I was affected by Leonard Cohen’s death last month. Much of his life was spent tussling with what he called the “curious activities” of art and religion. His artistic and religious inclinations were aimed at a form of transcendence – of becoming, he said allusively, not the “magician,” but magic itself. For Cohen, religion was the mystery in the space between the broken, striving individual and the unknowable universe.

And that’s as good a way as any, I suppose, of thinking about religion, the etymology of which suggests “tying together” or “reconnecting.” At its best, the religious impulse is an attempt to bind the human and the non-human world.

Traditionally, religion was understood not as doctrine or outward expression of “faith,” but as a “disposition” (as Peter Harrison puts it) – as a moral and intellectual habit that acknowledges our frail human condition, views living wisely as a challenge, and seeks meaning beyond logos.

In the modern world, post-Descartes, post-Nietzsche, we have a more pressing need for developing such a habit, I think, and greater difficulty in so doing. Mark C. Taylor reminds us that the “death of God” comes with a dizzying cost: solipsism, and “a loss of the center that for centuries had grounded thought, guided judgment and organized experience.”

In this world, with the “night continually closing in on us,” how best to cultivate an intelligently religious disposition?

The concept of bricolage suggests one possibility. Bricolage implies making something – first, by doing it yourself, and second, by using whatever’s at hand and improvising. Cohen was a bricoleur who poked around in many things and took what he needed in his quest for meaning – from his own Judaism, and from Buddhism and Christianity, as well as from sundry encounters with folks and folklore.

And so may we. The core of Christianity (as opposed to its institutional overlay) offers this: that love or charity is the fountainhead of virtue. In Buddhism, the acknowledgement of impermanence strikes me as a useful touchstone, as does the notion of divine reality without recourse to a personal God. And Buddhism’s “middle way” (between the extremes of dogmatism and skepticism) seems to me to be fertile ground for an enlightened epistemology. The “sapiential books” of the Jewish Bible remind us to strive for wisdom – and to distrust the “smarts.” I’ll take such heterogeneous insights wherever I find them.

We bricoleurs don’t need to syncretize any of this stuff. What we’re trying to “tie together” is not precepts but our selves, and our place in the world.

We strive to escape solipsism, and we search for beauty and meaning and enchantment. The only means at hand is our will to create, to build and improvise, drawing from wisdom wherever it’s found.


- Jamie MacKinnon

© 2017